Ralph Westfall,, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA


Because the field of information systems and technology is so broad and is expanding so rapidly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with all the possibilities. Therefore it is essential that students develop the skills to identify and keep themselves up-to-date, after they complete their formal education, with the technologies that will be most relevant to their careers. The "learning needs model" presents students with a cumulative series of assignments that help them develop skills to continue to identify and learn the technologies that will be most advantageous to them in their careers.


Information technologies are developing rapidly, corresponding to the exponential growth in the performance relative to cost of the underlying hardware technologies. This increasingly rapid rate of change sets the field apart from most other academic disciplines, creating unique problems for instructors who are trying to prepare their students to function effectively in their careers. In addition, information systems is a very broad field: it includes many different sub-topics that are in themselves quite extensive.

In an educational setting, the instructor can help students by selecting material to present and emphasize. Because of the rapid rate of change, however, students will need to continue learning about this field long after they leave the classroom. An introductory information systems course should ideally provide students with skills they will need for using, managing, and making decisions about a wide range of rapidly developing information technologies, including some that are not currently available but will emerge long after they complete the course.

It is neither feasible nor practical for everyone to keep up with every aspect of all the new technologies. The issue therefore becomes: How do we teach students the prioritization skills they will need to identify which technologies offer the greatest opportunities and thus deserve larger amounts of their limited attention? This question leads to the following objectives:

Educational Objectives


To deal with these problems and meet these objectives, I developed the Learning Needs Model, and a series of assignments to implement this model. I designed this approach to provide students with the skills and motivation they need to keep up with new technologies after they complete the class. Figure 1 diagrams the traditional approach to IS education, while Figure 2 diagrams the Learning Needs Model.

Implementing the Model

The instructor implements the Learning Needs Model through a series of homework assignments that offer practical, hands-on experiences which develop in an incremental and cumulative fashion. Students do the first assignment as individuals, but subsequent assignments are team projects. Each assignment includes printed outputs required from every student or team, and in-class oral presentations distributed so that every student makes one presentation during the semester. The specific assignments are as follows:

Week 2: Technology Self-assessment. Students are first asked to inventory their current technology skills and attitudes, and identify the industries where they expect to work and the types of work (technical, managerial, or professional) they will do in those industries. The inventory and career plans form the basis for a "gap" analysis: the second part of the assignment is to identify and prioritize their learning needs to get from where they currently are to where they will need to be in terms of information technology.

The importance of this assignment is that it forces students to recognize that they are unique: they have different career objectives than other students. Therefore in relation to information technology, the learning needs and what is important for one student will be somewhat different than for other students.

Week 3: What Makes an Information Technology Important? The following week, students receive a handout and a lecture presentation on characteristics that indicate that an information technology is or will become important. The assignment requires student teams to identify some information technology that is "very important," based on these characteristics (or any other characteristics that the students can justify). They then write up their topic according to a format that includes a definition and an explanation of the importance.

The importance of this assignment is that it provides a strategy for evaluating what is important in this field, and practice in applying this strategy.

Week 4: Finding Software That Embody Relevant And Important Technologies. The assignment for this week requires the student teams to locate Internet sites that offer software packages on a free or trial basis. This assignment builds on and is integrative of the two preceding assignments in that it asks the teams to locate software packages that embody information technologies that are both important and relevant to their career plans. It also provides students experience using Internet search engines.

Weeks 5-7: Downloading, Installing, and Evaluating Software. In this assignment the teams work with some software package, which they located in the previous week, that is important and relevant to their careers. The assignment requires them to take notes on the download/install/test process, and also to rate the software (1-10 scale) in terms of specific items on a list of reasons for importance from the week-3 assignment.

This assignment provides practice in downloading software from the Internet, which is becoming an increasingly important software distribution channel. It also provides very practical, hands-on experience in installing and practicing use of new software.

Week 8: Finding Sources of Information on Using Software. After a break of several weeks to allow time to complete the previous assignment, the student teams are asked to find sources of information (e.g., books, tutorials, World Wide Web sites) that will help them use software. Ideally these information sources should relate to the software they downloaded in the previous week but, in practice, this would not provide a consistent learning experience for all employees. Some packages would have extensive material available while others would have none at all. Therefore in this assignment the students find one source of information on each of three common software technologies--UNIX, SQL and HTML--that they can use in subsequent assignments. The emphasis with this assignment is on finding materials that provide basic information in a readily accessible form. The assignment also requires a relative ranking of the three different sources.

The rationale for this assignment is that, after they graduate, students will need to find materials on their own to keep up with and learn to use new information technologies. This assignment provides practice in finding such materials, and also provides experience in evaluating what makes one source better than another. This experience should be helpful in future decisions about buying books related to new information technologies.

Weeks 9-11: Practice Assimilating Software Technologies. In these assignments the teams perform some simple tasks using--in consecutive weeks--UNIX, SQL and HTML. The instructor provides little or no formal instruction on these technologies: instead students need to use the materials located in the previous assignment to help them complete the very basic tasks in the assignments.

This assignment has two objectives. The first is to provide hands-on learning experiences with important existing technologies, which may be useful in themselves and should also be somewhat generalizable to future learning situations with other software. The second objective is to provide experience with a self-study mode, where students take responsibility for locating and using information sources, to help prepare them to continue to learn about new technologies after their formal education is completed.

Term Project. At the end of the semester, the teams write up a relatively brief (around 10 pages, plus appendices) evaluation of the software they downloaded in the week-5 assignment. This assignment integrates materials from the previous assignments: it includes a learning needs assessment, and an evaluation of the general importance of the package. It also provides information on how the team used the software to perform some useful task and, if possible, an in-class demonstration of the software.


The Learning Needs Model attempts to provide students with the skills they will need, and the motivation to use these skills, to keep themselves up-to-date in a world of rapidly changing information technologies after they leave school. This is obviously a long-term objective whose ultimate achievement is not measurable within or at the end of a one-semester course. A true measure of the effectiveness of this approach would be a longitudinal comparison of the career trajectories and job performance of students taught via this approach versus other approaches.

Measurement of the achievement of the specific objectives on a short-term basis is also somewhat problematic. For example, the first objective is that students will understand the importance of, and be motivated to keep up with new technologies. One possible way to evaluate this would be to survey students, during or at the end of the semester, about specific activities (e.g., reading information technology trade publications) that would indicate they were trying to stay current. To be a valid indicator, however, this study would also require a control group and possibly a larger sample size than offered by the initial class (47 students) that used this approach.

On the other hand, it is possible to evaluate some other aspects that relate to the effectiveness of this approach. The approach needs to be understandable to and usable by students. If the concepts are too complex or the assignments are too difficult, the approach will obviously be ineffective in the short as well as the long-run, regardless of any comparisons to other approaches. If the students express major problems or great dissatisfaction with the approach, this would also argue against its effectiveness.

I am therefore using a variety of surrogate measures of effectiveness. These include:

Question (abridged) Not Very: 1 2 3 4 Very: 5 Mean
Interesting (compared to other classes) 4.3% 4.3% 34.8% 30.4% 26.1% 3.7
Challenging 4.3% 17.4% 26.1% 39.1% 13.0% 3.4
Valuable learning experience 8.7% 4.3% 21.7% 47.8% 17.4% 3.6
Helpful: prepare for first job 8.7% 4.3% 34.8% 30.4% 21.7% 3.5
Helpful: prepare for 5-20 years from now 13.0% 13.0% 30.4% 39.1% 4.3% 3.1